David MacKay, author Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air, final chat with Mark Lynas

On April 3, 2016, Mark Lynas met with David MacKay, the author of Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air, to give him the Breakthrough Institute’s 2016 Paradigm Award. After the brief ceremony, the two influential British thinkers chatted about David’s career, his love of arithmetic, his concerns about humanity and his famous book.

Perhaps the best remembered quote from Without the Hot Air is the following.

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to be pro-nuclear. I’m just pro-arithmetic.

Dr. MacKay is a practical-minded computer scientist, engineer and physicist who became so frustrated by the inconsistencies and innumeracy revealed in most energy related conversations that he began doing the math in an organized fashion. That led to a series of lectures and eventually to publishing a seminal book designed to help people quantify the cost, schedule, and resources needed to implement various energy scenarios.

One of his key instructional techniques is to convert all energy numbers (heat, electricity, transport)–both on the supply and demand side–to a common unit of kilowatt-hours/person/day.

He is not opposed to any particular prescription, but he is strongly opposed to ephemeral efforts that distract and confuse the public without adding up. One of his major points is that even a large number of individually small actions often do not result in a large final answer. In the video, he says “2 plus 2 plus 2 plus 2 plus plus plus simply does not add to 125 or 250.”

As a British citizen and former energy advisor to the UK government, MacKay’s initial point of reference is solving the UK energy supply challenge. He reminds us that winter happens, that solar energy is 9 times less in December than in July, and that there are often lengthy periods of still, cold days in one of the darkest countries on the planet. Energy consumption in the UK peaks in the winter, making any investment in solar energy redundant and economically wasteful. The energy supply system must be sized to be able to provide peak demand without any assistance from solar energy systems whether they are thermal or photovoltaic.

The same truth exists for countries or states at similar latitudes with similar climates, including Germany, Canada, and Vermont.

When Dr. MacKay’s selection as the winner of the 2016 Paradigm Award was announced, the plan was for the award to be presented at the Breakthrough Institute’s annual Dialog, scheduled for June 22 – June 24. Unfortunately, and–in this case quite sadly–the best laid plans often need revision. On April 14, 2016, just 11 days after accepting the award and talking on camera with Mark Lynas, Dr. MacKay died after a long struggle with cancer. He shared some thoughts about his situation with the world through his long running blog Everything is Connected.

If you have not heard of Dr. MacKay, I highly recommend that you read his book (which is available in a highly readable on line format for free) and take the time to watch his TEDx Warwick talk about sustainable energy.

Mr. Atomic Goes to New York for The Future of Energy – Part 1

On April 4 and 5, I had the pleasure of attending the 9th annual The Future of Energy Summit organized by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) and held at the Grand Hyatt next door to New York’s Grand Central Station. The organizing theme of this year’s event, The Age of Plenty, the Age of Competition […]

Read more »

Defending FP&L from Tim Dickinson’s Rolling Stone hit piece

Tim Dickinson wrote a lengthy piece for Rolling Stone titled The Koch Brothers’ Dirty War on Solar Power: All over the country, the Kochs and utilities have been blocking solar initiatives — but nowhere more so than in Florida. Though the Koch Brothers got top billing in the headline for fairly obvious reasons, the real […]

Read more »

Another day, another model “proving” capabilities of weather-dependent power

On January 25, 2016 the NOAAnews (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency news) web site published a brief article with the following alluring headline: Rapid, affordable energy transformation possible NOAA, CIRES study: Wind, sun could eclipse fossil fuels for electric power by 2030 As the headline creator hoped, I couldn’t resist reading more. I was shocked, […]

Read more »

Vermonters say they want industrial wind to go the way of the billboard

As a native of South Florida, I’ve probably logged at least a million miles driving on its interstate and U.S. highways. Most Americans have probably had at least a small taste of that experience. The contrast between Florida’s highways and those in Vermont is stark; Florida’s are littered with billboards. They often advertise products or […]

Read more »

Assembling reliable off grid power system for emergency preparedness

Many advocates of unreliable power sources like wind and solar blithely toss out the concept of “storage” as the panacea that makes their favored energy sources viable competitors in the potentially lucrative business of supplying on demand power. I’m skeptical because I have some experience with operating and budgeting for power systems that use batteries […]

Read more »

Reliable partnership between natural gas and renewable energy

Naomi Oreskes is the Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. She is also the author of the December 16, 2015 opinion piece published in the Guardian titled There is a new form of climate denialism to look out for – so don’t celebrate yet. […]

Read more »

Biomass plants can do more than just produce electrons

I’m opposed to subsidies that encourage the cultivation of plants and trees for the sole purpose of converting them into heat or electricity. Often sold under the “renewable energy” brand, such programs can result in substantial harm by paying people to bulldoze rain forests to plant soy or palms for their oil content or by […]

Read more »

Caldeira, Emanuel, Wigley and Hansen Statement at COP21, December 4, 2015

On December 4, 2015, during COP21, Energy for Humanity hosted a press conference at which four leading climate scientists provided statements explaining why they believe that nuclear energy must be included in the effort to reduce CO2 emissions from the the power sources currently used to enable our modern, increasingly prosperous society. The effort is […]

Read more »

Mark Jacobson describes attributes of his incredibly optimistic wind, water, solar energy plans

During COP16, Dr. Mark Z. Jacobson described attributes of his team’s most recently produced paper. The abstract leads with the following claim about the paper’s content. This study addresses the greatest concern facing the large-scale integration of wind, water, and solar (WWS) into a power grid: the high cost of avoiding load loss caused by […]

Read more »

Atomic Show #247 – Jigar Shah, founder SunEdison and Generate Capital

Jigar Shah is the founder of SunEdison, a former CEO of the Carbon War Room, and is currently the President of Generate Capital. He is also a member of The Energy Gang on Greentech Media. Jigar and I have been engaged in some lively discussions on Twitter about the future of solar and nuclear energy […]

Read more »

Saving the Environment from Environmentalism

By Paul Lorenzini Part I. Must we destroy the environment to save it? When Jonathan Franzen wrote a provocative piece in The New Yorker earlier this year, “Climate Capture”, Chris Clarke, an influential environmental blogger in California, described it as having “walked up to a hornet’s nest and hit it with a baseball bat.”[1] Franzen […]

Read more »